There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the celebration of Christmas in recent years. We do well to remember that the celebration of Christmas has been controversial before: Puritan New England banned the holiday for a time as too “Popish”. Congress was actually in session on the holiday in 1789 and Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870. What has been constant since the first century is the veneration of the birth of Christ by Christians. We who claim that tradition as our own are responsible for its celebration. No one else is or should be.
Celebrating Christmas this year will be different. It will be different not just for our Gloucester Catholic family but all across the globe – from Gloucester City to the Church of the Nativity nestled in the foothills of Palestine in Bethlehem. We are reminded of the Light who came to bring light to us all, of the humble beginnings of the child Jesus, born to a family too poor to afford a place to stay, whose arrival coincided with political powers and schemes to take his life, as well as those who came to honor Him born in a manger and lit by a Star: shepherds, Magi, the animals in the shed and angels from on high. The birth of Jesus set a trajectory that led right to Good Friday, when seemingly the powers and principalities had accomplished their purpose and silenced the Prince of Peace. But the story continued – to Easter Sunday and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit that continues to this day calling us to credit marvels, practice faith, live in hope and, most of all to love one another.
This means, first and foremost, to respect and protect one another.
The end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918 in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, pushed people into the streets to hail the Armistice. On Nov. 12, many cities decided the restrictions were over. In Seattle, newspaper headlines declared victory over the flu proclaiming “Epidemic Virtually Over”.
But the celebration was premature. In the wake of lifting restrictions, people celebrated victory; large gatherings for war bond drives started up again; and people came together for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Cases again began to rise. Of the roughly total who died from the flu in 1918-19, a vast number of them died from January 1919 forward There was no immunity guaranteed by special occasions.
Mary, Joseph and the shepherds kept the Christ child safe from Herod. They then endured a temporary exile in Egypt retracing the steps of Joseph, his brothers and Jacob on the way in and Moses, Aaron and Miriam on the way out. The Magi went home by another way. The child grew in wisdom and grace.
I wonder if we might not seize this moment to focus upon the most important element in our Christmas celebrations – the Gift that is Christmas: Emmanuel – God among us. God is present in the love we bear for one another within our families. God is present in our friendships. God is present in those in need and in the poor. Christmas is a special time when we make room for God’s presence in our lives. That is at the heart of our tradition. It is the cause for our celebration. God is present too, with and within us. Christmas gives us eyes to see that reality in the birth of a child.
Let us all pray for the wisdom and grace to truly celebrate the birth of the Christ Child and His message of peace and goodwill.
Let’s celebrate the reality of God present in our lives with open hearts filled with joy.
Let’s celebrate Christmas wisely, safely and full of grace.